"One of the best," Chicago's Antti Niemi said.
MORE: NIEMI HOLDS OFF | SHARKS STYMIED
He doesn't need to say anymore.
On a day when San Jose came flying out of the smoking shark's mouth with bundles of pent-up energy thanks to an eight-day layoff, the Chicago Blackhawks needed their goalie, Finland's latest sensation, to come up with a world-class performance.
A playoff-high 44 saves was just enough.
Blackhawks 2, Sharks 1. Game 2 is Tuesday night.
"I don't know why we keep answering questions about Antti," said Hawks center Patrick Sharp, whose goal 7:44 into the second period evened the score at 1-1. Dustin Byfuglien scored the winner with 6:45 remaining in the third on a slap shot from between the circles, just above the hash marks.
"There are no questions from our side," Sharp continued. "We know (Niemi) is going to be solid and we need him to be big again in Game 2."
Niemi was huge from start to finish Sunday. His only blunder came 11:19 into the first period when Jason Demers' wrist shot from the top of the right circle sailed over his outstretched blocker and into the top left corner of the net.
There was speculation that Demers' shot hit off Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith's hip, but Keith said he didn't feel the puck touch him at all. He did say that he thought he was screening Niemi and the puck was fluttering, too.
Nevertheless, Demers' goal, which ignited the already boisterous crowd of 17,562 early-risers inside the Shark Tank, did not sink the Blackhawks. If anything, it might have motivated Niemi, who stopped the last 36 shots he faced, including eight during the Sharks' power play late in the second period.
Remember, Niemi -- at least upon entering the playoffs -- was supposed to be the reason the Blackhawks would not parade the Stanley Cup down Michigan Avenue this year. He supposedly wasn't battle-tested enough to lead a team, even one this deep, to the end.
"Well, I guess if they keep saying that it'll keep motivating him to prove them wrong," Hawks captain Jonathan Toews said. "We know nothing being said or pointed out about him is really bothering him and it's the same way with any other individual in our locker room. He's playing well under the pressure and we're trying our best to help him out. He was definitely our most valuable player (Sunday)."
That's stating the obvious.
Without Niemi's brilliance, the Blackhawks would likely be staring at a hole heading into Game 2 for the fifth straight playoff series because his counterpart in the other net, Evgeni Nabokov, was on his game, too.
Nabokov made 38 saves, but he couldn't stop Sharp's wrist shot in the second period, nor could he save Byfuglien's slap shot in the third. The Blackhawks won Game 1 for the first time since last year's Western Conference Quarterfinal round against Calgary.
"It goes to show, doesn't take much for them to score goals," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "They'll find a way to put it in."
Niemi's biggest moment came in the latter part in the second period when the Blackhawks were struggling to kill off Brent Seabrook's holding penalty on Kent Huskins. San Jose, which was on its heels for most of the first 14 minutes of the period and getting outshot 14-6 by that point, turned it on when Seabrook went to the box.
The Sharks kept the puck in the zone and kept firing it at Niemi. He came up with eight saves during the two-minute power play, and none bigger than a miraculous glove stop on Ryane Clowe with 4:13 remaining before the second intermission.
Jason Demers' shot was blocked by Brent Sopel and the puck scurried to Clowe, who was at the doorstep, standing in front of the right post. He tried to slap it in, but Niemi somehow reached his catching glove back in time to keep the puck out and cover it up.
The Sharks had the final 12 shots of the second period, but Niemi stopped them all.
"We had our chances to win that game, to take the lead," Sharks right wing Dany Heatley said. "We have to get back at it in Game 2."
After some matchup jockeying done by Chicago coach Joel Quenneville, he settled on Toews to take the in-zone faceoff against Joe Thornton with 6:49 left in the game.
Toews won the draw to the wall, where Patrick Kane won a battle for the puck. Byfuglien sauntered into the middle of the zone, exactly where Kane and Toews have been telling him to go, and Kane saw him almost immediately.
The skilled American feathered a pass to his burly winger. Byfuglien settled the puck before rifling a shot past Rob Blake and Heatley and through Nabokov with 6:45 left. It was Byfuglien's fifth goal of the playoffs, all in the last five games.
"We keep telling him to just hit the net and either one of the other two, Kaner or I, will go find the rebound," Toews said. "Sometimes he just has to hit the net, and he showed he can power it right through a goaltender. It doesn't matter where he is, he's hungry to score goals and we want him to keep playing that way."
And even with Byfuglien's goal, the Sharks were not dead yet.
Kris Versteeg went to the penalty box for tripping Devin Setoguchi -- a penalty some thought should have gone to Dave Bolland, one of the Hawks' top penalty killers -- with 56 seconds left in the game.
McLellan had already pulled Nabokov and called a timeout to set up his 6-on-4 strategy. Thornton won the draw from John Madden, but neither Dan Boyle nor Patrick Marleau could beat Niemi with their shots on net before the game ended.
"We're not going to be satisfied with just one win," Toews said. "We want two before we go home."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
Shift of the game: Chicago had an offensive zone draw with under seven minutes remaining in a tie game. Captain Jonathan Toews won the faceoff and Patrick Kane collected the puck along the right-wing boards before finding Dustin Byfuglien between the circles. San Jose defenseman Rob Blake tried to get out to challenge the shot, but Byfuglien ripped the puck past Evgeni Nabokov for the game-winning goal.